By Mark Guarino
Surprise is not what it used to be. With studio technology able to summon similar beats and hooks of whatever dominates the Top 10, the flavor of current pop music is increasingly one. With their slim stable of stars, remixers and producers, record companies encourage familiarity. Where there used to be a definable and long-reaching arc of an artist’s career, now there is usually just a moment of inspired individuality. Or maybe two. Sometimes none.
Bjork is one of the few artists remaining who can’t be counted on delivering the same thing twice. She is a savvy operator who uses the unpredictable aesthetics of the underground to tweak the mainstream with her beguiling dancefloor pop hits and quirky public persona. Since her days with the Icelandic rock band the Sugarcubes, her albums have shifted backdrops — big band to pounding techno — to enhance the many emotions stirred by her singing. Her voice is her most transforming instrument. With it, she can assume the role of a wailing techno diva or cocoon herself inside a sumptuous cradle of simple instrumentation. The cracks in her voice can be relied upon to deliver a range of vulnerability, from mad obsession to sobering warmth.
The vocal work is used to the extreme on “Medulla” (Elektra), her sixth album and the most surprising chapter in Bjork’s career. In stores a week ago, the album strips the instruments away until they disappear almost completely so the songs become structured through a complex arrangement of voices.
That’s not to suggest “Medulla” should be filed next to Bobby McFerrin, Manhattan Transfer or ‘50s doo-wop. The vocal work is less straightforward than simple harmonizing. Instead, using choirs and guest singers like Mike Patton of Faith No More and Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq, Bjork orchestrates the songs with an ear tuned to the different ways the human voice can add or subtract tension, create mystery or sound an alarm. The singing is often without words, with vocalists who whistle, grunt, sigh, mew, stutter and chant and choirs that crest with drama or simmer, creating ethereal stillness. Because her lyrics keep returning to themes of spiritual bliss, eternal love and motherhood, the songs can’t help but sound like strange prayers that refuse to sit still and remain pacified.
The few instruments on “Medulla” are synthesizer, piano and simple programmed beats. They parallel the beatboxing of Rahzel, on loan from The Roots and Gregory Purnhagen, billed as a “human trombone.” The choir singers are assembled to recreate instruments or they sweep together as one body, accenting moments with church-like austerity.
Even though all this is jarring at first listen, many of the songs are not that unconventional. “Where is the Line” follows the basic verse-chorus structure, but the ensemble — Rahzel’s thudding beatbox, the flickering choir voices, the whistling — is processed to make it sound as if blowing through an electric fan. “I want to be elastic for you,” Bjork sings, pleading as if sucked inside the foreboding space noise.
The most joyous songs are, no surprise, the ones you can dance to. “Who Is It” skips to jittery, skeletal beats as Bjork sings, “his embrace, a fortress/it fuels me.” The meatiest dance track, “Triumph of a Heart,” slams down hard, with Bjork declaring, “the nerves are sending shimmering signals/all through my fingers.”
Any album relying so much on the voice would feel incomplete without songs sung a cappella. Singing “Oll Birtan” in Icelandic, Bjork creates the austerity of a liturgical mass while on “Ancestors,” her wordless cries, combined with the crude sounds created by throat singer Tagaq, contrast beauty with ugliness. It is a challenge to absorb and an exhausting listen.
The complexity of “Medulla” is vast. It is catchy but challenging, structured but unorthodox, simple but endlessly elaborate. It takes the listener to new places, a genuine feat in today’s climate of predictable end products. Singing of “smooth soft red velvety lungs … pushing a network of oxygen joyfully” (“Triumph of a Heart”), Bjork demonstrates how that sounds and what are the possibilities.